Sunday, 24 June 2018

Decision Fatigue and What to Do About It - When to Use Antibiotics for URTI, AOM and Tonsillitis in Children

Recently I was speaking to a GP colleague about the ways to protect oneself from decision fatigue.  Decision fatigue is a serious issue for anyone in a high volume, high turnover medical job.  He had some great insights into the problem and the solutions.

What are the effects of decision fatigue?  In the short term, your decision making ability gradually declines.  In the long term there is a risk of burnout.  From your patient’s point of view, your fatigue could mean that because you have already made too many decisions, you will not make the right decision when it really matters.  It is possible that this could lead to harm to a  patient.  Decision fatigue affects our ability to show compassion or provide patient centred care.  Subconsciously we protect ourselves from too many decisions by caring less and being more directive.

My GP friend’s solution to all of this was elegantly simple: make fewer decisions.  His rationale was this: there is only so much that we can give and we need to choose when to use our decision making energy.  If decision making is a finite resource then to use it indiscriminately is could even be seen as irresponsible.

So, how do you choose what to stop deciding?  Well, I would start with a commonly occurring dilemma that creates a great deal of uncertainty.  How about antibiotics for sore throats and ears in children?

You will notice I don’t talk about tonsillitis, URTI or otitis media.  These terms all imply an aetiology.  That is a presumption that is completely misleading.  Tonsillitis may be viral and red throat without exudate may be streptococcal.  The truth is that we don’t have a reliable way of discriminating between viral and bacterial aetiology when we examine throats and ears.  So we can't know who to give antibiotics to.  Rather than exhausting ourselves trying to get it right, perhaps we should just stop, but is that safe and justifiable? I am not the first person to ask that question. (1)

The decision that we are all faced with, to antibiotic or not-antibiotic, has to have a valid goal.  So the next question has to be, “What is the benefit in giving antibiotics?”

Do we give antibiotics to prevent complications?  In the UK this is not the case.  The evidence is very much against a need to give antibiotics as a way of preventing complications of URTI.  Antibiotic prescribing rates are falling and yet there is no crisis caused by increased numbers of invasive infection or the sequelae of streptococcal infection.(2)  Logically, if there was a quantifiable risk of complications related to reduced antibiotic prescribing, we would all have to justify each decision not to prescribe.  As previously mentioned, there is no reliable discriminator, so shouldn’t we be hearing from the public health authorities that we need to be more proactive in our antibiotic prescribing.  That’s not the message we are getting at all.  Why?  Because prescribing antibiotics for sore throats and sore ears in children (in a country with a low prevalence of complications such as rheumatic fever) is not part of a strategy for prevention of secondary infection, invasive infection, sepsis or any other complication.(3)

Should we be giving antibiotics to control symptoms?  Let’s look at that as a reason to prescribe antibiotics.  What are the facts?
  • The odds of antibiotics helping the symptoms of any one child are low.  The actual number varies by age, study and whether we are talking about ear or throat symptoms but they are all in the same region.  The odds of benefit are in the region of 10-20%.  
  • Decision tools such as Centor and FeverPain are designed to improve the odds that antibiotics will help symptoms but there are  major problems with these aids.  Firstly, they are not validated in the younger children who account most of the presentations of sore ears and sore throats.  Secondly, these tools imply a binary outcome.  If you score above a certain number, antibiotics will help right?  Wrong.  A high score means slightly less awful odds that antibiotics will help.  Again, that is only validated if your patient is an older child. (4,5)
  • Rapid antigen testing has been validated as a way of reducing antibiotic prescribing but has not been shown to have a high sensitivity from the point of view of directing treatment to where it is effective.  These two things are very different. (6)
  • There is a significant harm done by antibiotics in children.  Depending on the antibiotic and the study, the odds of making a child unwell (vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea) with an antibiotic is 5-10%.  
So where have we heard 10% before.  Wasn’t it something to do with odds of benefit?  What would a statistician say if they looked at the odds of benefit and the odds of harm and saw that they overlapped.  In all truthfulness I couldn’t stay awake for the full answer but the gist was that there’s not a lot of point in such a treatment being used as a way to manage symptoms.
Finally, here are two things that make a nonsense of the whole question.
  1. Children often refuse the antibiotics we give them.  Phenoxymethyl penicillin in particular is disgusting and children tend to be quite discerning in their medicine preferences.  Often the outcome of a difficult decision over whether to give antibiotics is later made meaningless as the child decides for all involved that the antibiotics are not going to happen.  The parent, remembering that it was a choice rather than a must-do usually gives up the fight.
  2. The issue of antibiotics for tonsillitis and otitis media fails an important test: Snelson's Safeguarding Test.  It goes like this:  A parent brings a 2 year old to you with a fever and a cough.  You see exudate on the tonsils and are about to prescribe penicillin.  The parent says that they prefer not to treat their child with antibiotics.  You have confidently ruled out sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia.  What are you going to do? Get a court order to force the parent to give the antibiotics?  Refer the child to social services?  I don't think so.
So if the parents and the child are allowed to refuse antibiotics for sore throats and ears, how important can they be?  We wouldn't allow these barriers to get in the way if the child's life was at risk or even if the child was going to suffer as a result of non-treatment.  This way of looking at it is a good way of identifying the children who should be having antibiotics:
  • Children with severe symptoms despite maximal analgesia
  • Children with complications of URTI (such as infected lymph nodes)
  • Scarlet fever (typical rash and oral inflammation alongside pharyngitis/tonsillitis and febrile illness) implies a more pathological strain of steptococcal infection
  • Children with prolonged symptoms e.g. no signs of improvement after five days of illness
So next time you see a child with URTI, ask yourself, could I insist that this child should have antibiotics?  If not, save yourself a decision.  You know it makes sense.  All we have to do is convince the parents that this is the right thing to do.  (more on that very soon)

Edward Snelson
Disclaimer: I was replaced by a robot three years ago.

  1. Morton P. Should we treat strep throat with antibiotics? Canadian Family Physician. 2007;53(8):1299.
  2. Kvaerner KJ, Bentdal Y, Karevold G., Acute mastoiditis in Norway: no evidence for an increase, Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2007 Oct;71(10):1579-83. Epub 2007 Aug 20.
  3. NICE, Sore Throat (acute): Antimicrobial Prescribing, NG84, January 2018
  4. Little Paul, Hobbs F D Richard, Moore Michael, Mant David, Williamson Ian, McNulty Cliodna et al. Clinical score and rapid antigen detection test to guide antibiotic use for sore throats: randomised controlled trial of PRISM (primary care streptococcal management) BMJ 2013; 347 :f5806
  5. Roggen I, van Berlaer G, Gordts F, et al Centor criteria in children in a paediatric emergency department: for what it is worth BMJ Open 2013;3:e002712. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-002712
  6. Little Paul, Hobbs F D Richard, Moore Michael, Mant David, Williamson Ian, McNulty Cliodna et al. Clinical score and rapid antigen detection test to guide antibiotic use for sore throats: randomised controlled trial of PRISM (primary care streptococcal management) BMJ 2013; 347 :f5806

Monday, 11 June 2018

Paediatrics is Not a Specialty - top tips for working with young people

Paediatrics is difficult to define as a specialty.  At one point the RCPCH talked about “doctors who look at specific health issues, diseases and disorders related to stages of growth and development.”  Now the RCPCH careers site has a very different note stating, "Whether a paediatrician, GP, children's nurse or pharmacist, our job is to help babies, children and young people thrive." I'm guessing that the RCPCH realised that it wasn't just doctors and it certainly wasn't just paediatricians who fitted the original description.

In fact paediatrics may not be a specialty at all.  It could be defined as the art of treating children differently from adults by knowing what diseases affect them, how they respond to illness and how to use that knowledge to help them during their illness or prevent them from becoming ill.

Anyone who works with children in a healthcare setting should study of the art of paediatrics.  We all need to develop our skills in assessing and treating ill children as well as becoming experts in all the other aspects of child health including safeguarding, growth and development.  Children and young people are different in so many ways and it takes a bit of effort to get good at working with them but it is completely worth it.

What is different about children and young people that requires a different approach and different skills?

Children respond differently to illness - Physiological changes can be dramatic in uncomplicated viral illness making the recognition of complicated infection difficult
Children may not localise, report or recognise symptoms - This is why constipation and UTI are often only diagnosed when they have been prolonged.
Children often present with something normal - This often happens because an adult is concerned and doesn't know that the symptom is normal.  One example is knock knees in children.
The overall likelihood of significant pathology is low - Much of paediatrics is about diagnosing normality or at least that the illness is uncomplicated and does not require medical intervention.  The other side of this coin is that the routine nature of a good outcome can lead to complacency and impairs our awareness of complications and significant pathology.
Children are vulnerable - As well as the safeguarding element of caring for children and young people, we have to consider how difficult it is for them to feel safe in a healthcare setting.  It is confusing and intimidating and it is too easy to forget to keep the child at the centre of the process.
There is a lot of uncertainty that goes with the assessment of children - paediatrics is often compared to veterinary medicine because we end up relying more on what we see.  It is fairly usual to find that we can't get specific symptoms and that our ability to examine is limited by the child's interaction.

Last week, I went onto TwitFace and asked the people who were online what their top tips are for working with children an young people.  What follows is based on some of the great responses I recieved.

Starting with the general advice:

There were also loads of tips for examining children:
I haven't been able to include everything and in some cases there were recurring themes which I have categorised together.  There were quite a few specific things that people have found to be useful in paediatric examination, some of which are listed here:
  • The guess what's in the tummy game.  I have a high success rate with guessing sausages.  However you go about it I would highly recommend this approach to abdominal examination.  It's probably quite scary for a child to have a stranger press their tummy, but if it's a game that seems to be a different matter.
  • For assessing gait, get the child to walk towards their parent rather than away from them.
  • For ENT examination:  Tell the child: "I have a magic fairy/dragon detector (ear thermometer) that goes beep when a fairy is in the room. If it beeps I have to check their ears and throat with my magic torch to make sure it isn’t hiding in there."  I have to try that one.
  • For respiratory exam, ask them to blow out the candles on an imaginary birthday cake.
One place even had a departmental rabbit.  I can imagine that would work to settle many an otherwise inconsolable child!

Paediatrics may not be a specialty but it is an art.  How you approach that art is up to you but whichever you go about it the end result should be the same:  The child will get the best care possible and you might be having some fun at the same time.

Edward Snelson
Possibly not a Paediatrician

Disclaimer - All the views expressed here are solely those of the author.  Any references to Royal Colleges are entirely fictional and should not be used as a reason to revoke the author's invitation to the annual RCPCH cheese night.

Acknowledgements: Thank you to all the people who shared their tips and tricks via social media or face to face.  More importantly, thank you to all the children who put up with us while we figure out how to do the whole paediatric examination thing.  Your patience and tolerance is appreciated.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Right Sort of Confidence - (Easter Egg: Acute abdominal pain in children)

I feel pretty confident that my car has the right amount of oil in the engine and air in the tires.  Why?  because that has been the case every time I check these things.  So why bother checking?

Paediatrics is a dangerous speciality because the usual outcome of any child presenting for assessment is that everything is fine.  Fever?  It's probably an uncomplicated viral infection.  Rash?  Virus.  Lump in the neck?  Virus.  You get the idea.

As a result, any one of us can become so used to the benign outcome that we don't expect the dangerous problems or the unusual causes of childhood symptoms.  This is called availability bias.  The last 50 children with this presenting complaint had a virus and got better, so this patient is likely to be the same.

Of course the statement about the likelihood is true, however people don't bring their children to us just for a probability estimate.  We are there to assess whether there is a significant problem that requires intervention.  To get there, we need to know what to look for.

Abdominal pain in children is a good example.  Children often get abdominal pains.  One of the most common presentations is abdominal pain during a febrile illness.  Most likely cause?  Virus.  I suspect that the significant pathology that is most often considered in this situation is appendicitis.  Appendicitis is relatively rare in younger children but paradoxically more difficult to diagnose, so while the chances of a 3 year old having appendicitis is very low, so are the chances that a 3 year old with appendicitis will get this diagnosed easily.

Appendicitis is at least on our minds and so we're probably not going to miss it through failure to look.  There are plenty of causes of abdominal pain that are easily missed for various reasons.  Lower lobe pneumonia, for example, is easily missed because it isn't in the abdomen.  Testicular torsion is easily missed if it isn't looked for.  You'd think that if a child or young person had a problem with their genitalia they might mention that.  They often don't.  If you don't look for torsion, you won't find it.

Here's a brief overview of some of the easily missed causes of abdominal pain in children:
Here is a more extensive list of possible causes of abdominal pain in children. (1)

Going through these, starting at one o'clock:

Mesenteric Adenitis - Yes, children with viral upper respiratory tract infection can get acute abdominal pains and can even have localised abdominal tenderness.  Children with more significant causes of pain can also have URTI, so if there are red flag signs or symptoms you should still take these seriously.
Non-IgE food allergy - This can cause acute abdominal pain but paradoxically is a diagnosis best not made acutely.  History, a food diary and follow-up are the way forward when food allergy becomes a possibility.
Gastroenteritis - When vomiting precedes abdominal pain then this makes gastroenteritis more likely.  Similarly, diarrhoea is a strong indicator of viral enteritis.  However, there is no such thing as always, so careful abdominal examination is key and signs that suggest a surgical cause should still lead to referral.
Gynaecological - The main thing to say about this is that it is a common pitfall to forget to even consider this possibility in children.  How often do you think ectopic pregnancy is considered in the differential of a 13 year old with acute abdominal pain?  It should always be remembered as a possiblity.  Do a pregnancy test.
Constipation - This is possibly the most common cause of afebrile acute abdominal pain in children.  There are two main pitfalls.  The first is to miss the diagnosis because the child or parent doesn't think the child is constipated.  The second is to think that because the presentation is acute, the problem just needs a brief period of treatment.  If they are constipated enough to present with acute pain, the problem is chronic and should be treated as such as per NICE guidelines.
Urinary Tract Infection - Abdominal pain +/- vomiting without diarrhoea is a common way for children to present with UTI.  There is no absolute rule on when and when not to test a urine but it is fair to say that significant diarrhoea usually precludes it for a couple of reasons.  In all other cases of acute abdominal pain, it is usually a good idea even if interpreting the result is not completely straightforward.
Colic - Truly a diagnosis of exclusion, but this can be a good history and examination. What to do with colic is covered here.
Appendicitis - Uncommon but not so rare that you won't see a case every now and then. Picking them out from the crowd can be difficult.  Good simple analgesia and reassessment after an hour is often a helpful discriminator for the grey cases if you can do that.
Testicular torsion - Inguinal and genital examination is part of the examination of a male presenting with abdominal pain.  Do it, even if the last 100 times were normal.
Intussusception - Rare but deadly.  Episodes of pallor and signs of being significantly unwell are reasons to suspect intussusception.  Bloody and mucousy (recurrent jelly-like) stools make it easier to diagnose but may be a late sign.
Diabetic Ketoacidosis - It is very easy to see how first presentations are initially diagnosed as viral illnesses.  If you've got a child who's a bit more lethargic or subdued than your typical gastroenteritis case, or if there is a report of polyuria, test a glucose.

In most cases, significant causes will be excluded by a thorough history and examination.  Often a urine test is a good idea and sometimes a second opinion will be necessary.  Abdominal X-ray is almost never useful in making a decision about referral.

Paradoxically,  the wrong sort of confidence comes from repeated experience of nothing bad happening.  The right sort of confidence comes from knowing that bad things will happen and knowing that we're ready for that eventuality.  This often happens once you've experienced the sharp end of an unexpected diagnosis.  If that has happened, congratulations!  You're now an expert.

Edward Snelson
Experienced if not Expert

Disclaimer - Experience doesn't always lead to expertise but it's a fairly important element. Bad experience is a good wad to develop great expertise but only if you have all the right elements in place to ensure that you learn without becoming a second victim.  I would like to see more work in that area, especially at the Primary/ Secondary Care interface.


  1. The Essential Clinical Handbook of Common Paediatric Cases, Edward Snelson